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February 2, 2019

When Buddhahood came Calling, I Wasn’t Ready to Answer. 


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Jeremy and I had been seeing each other for only a short time when we decided to take a weekend trip to my grandfather’s cottage on the Mississippi River. The three-hour drive from Madison through the southwestern Wisconsin countryside was beautiful.

It was early autumn and the leaves were just beginning to change colors.

We had dated years before, and I was on the rebound when we ran into each other again at 21. My last boyfriend was a stable guy and would have probably done just about anything for me, but I ended up pushing him away with my unpredictability and sometimes excessive anger.

I had also, unfortunately, developed the habit of immediately going from one boyfriend or short-term fling to the next. Always saying I was looking for love, I would end up picking fights or being unfaithful and move on when things got too comfortable or close.

At my grandfather’s cottage, I found the backdoor key hidden near the water pump and we opened the place up. After unloading our supplies from Jeremy’s truck, I grabbed a beer and Jeremy grabbed a soda and we went out front to the bench overlooking the Mississippi River.

“I have to do my practice now,” Jeremy said setting his soda can on the bench.

“What practice?” I said, surprised.

“My Buddhist practice—I do it twice a day, actually.”

“But you never—” I started to say. I had no idea, maybe he’d been too afraid of my reaction to say anything.

Jeremy stood up and walked over near the neighbor’s property line and sat down in the grass. He crossed his legs and raised his hands up to his chest and with eyes open, began to chant nam-myoho-renge-kyo, nam-myoho-renge-kyo, nam-myoho-renge-kyo over and over in a slow, rhythmic fashion.

He seemed nervous at first, and then his voice, with each successive repetition, gradually took on a deeper, more otherworldly, and almost metallic-like quality. I looked away and back toward the river, disturbed by the chanting, which now seemed to drown out everything, from the sound of a motorboat speeding upriver, to the poplar leaves rustling overhead in the breeze, and the small waves hitting the rock embankment below.

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I would later learn, meant something like, “I dedicate my life to the wonderful law of cause and effect that leads to Buddhahood.”

I didn’t have anything against Buddhism. In fact, I’d read quite a few books on Buddhism while searching for answers to my ongoing confusion and restlessness. I was generally pretty open-minded but at that moment, I just couldn’t handle Jeremy chanting.

I grabbed my beer, went inside the cottage and through the window, watched him chant. I could love him, I thought. He was a stable guy and would probably do almost anything for me. I could quit smoking and drinking and take up Buddhist chanting.

I usually abandoned my own interests anyway and adopted those of my boyfriends, slipping into fresh identities with each new relationship like the many times I gave up reading books and discussing philosophy or tried to be punk rock when I was really more eclectic and folksy at heart. Maybe Jeremy was something like a life raft coming along before a great flood.

A day and a half later, we closed up my grandfather’s cottage for winter. I tucked the key back into its hiding place near the water pump. When we got back to Madison, and with the familiar cushion of a few drinks, I broke up with Jeremy. He was confused and wanted to give it another chance, but I refused.

I wasn’t ready for a stable boyfriend or a lifestyle change, let alone Buddhahood. It would take another two years before I got sober and another four years before I quit smoking.

The Dalai Lama says in The Art of Happiness, “I think that if one is seeking to build a truly satisfying relationship, the best way of bringing this about is to get to know the deeper nature of the person and relate to her or him on that level, instead of merely on the basis of superficial characteristics.”

It would be another almost 15 years of unavailable boyfriends, heartaches, and other misadventures before I was finally ready to go it alone and start the process of looking into my own, deeper nature.

Sick and tired of living in a more or less constant state of distraction and low-grade confusion, I looked in the mirror after spending a depressing weekend at 35 with an almost complete stranger and was, as Mary Oliver said, “determined to save the only life that [I] could save.”

I recommitted myself to a 12-step program and wrote another inventory hoping, among other things, to understand why I kept choosing mostly unavailable men, why I was afraid to be alone, and why I continued to believe that happiness demanded sacrifice.

I also started getting comfortable with the idea that I might never meet anyone again or get married or even have children. And it was shortly after that I met my husband.

I was almost 38-years-old when we married and we are still together—two kids and 15 years later. The paradox seems to be that the more willing we are to save our own lives and seek “the Middle Way,” the more ourselves we become, and then somewhere along the path, we begin to discover that elusive happiness.

As far as Jeremy goes—it never was about him, but simply about me not being ready yet.


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